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Sometimes your calling finds you before you even know you had one. As a kid, Thandie Newton was studying dance at England’s Tring Park School for the Performing Arts  with no idea of acting. On a break, she went to an on-campus audition for the 1991 Australian film Flirting. They needed an “African girl” and she was the only one in the school. So there you have it – kind of. The director told her the audition was horrible (what do you want from a 16-year-old novice?), but if he was lacking in the sensitivity department, you can’t deny his eye for raw talent.

Newton went on to study social anthropology at Cambridge but landed back in front of a camera four years later with Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire. More hints of that talent – and an emerging gift for nuance – surfaced in her performance as slave/ mistress Sally Hemings in Jefferson In Paris the following year, but full-blown proof came with her searing performance as a mentally disabled woman in Jonathan Demme’s horror drama Beloved. If an actor’s stock in trade is control of her own instrument, maybe the rarer skill is letting it go. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mused, “Thandie Newton does an interesting thing with her performance. She inhabits her body as if she doesn’t have the operating instructions. She walks unsteadily. She picks up things as if she doesn’t quite command her grasp. She talks like a child. And indeed inside this young woman there is a child…”

Newton was becoming recognized for the unusual combination that she is: An artist with leading lady beauty and the rap sheet of a character actress. Perhaps the social anthropology homework helped, too. Newton is at her best inhabiting roles and stories that reflect our world and the people in it for what they are, or better put, for what they aren’t: black and white. If you require our source material for that thesis, go back and watch The Pursuit of Happyness, Crash, The Slap, For Colored Girls and W. Even films that didn’t flip critics’ thumbs to the upright position couldn’t stamp out her charisma. The New York Times didn’t love the mega-budget Mission Impossible: II, but said Newton “displayed enough warmth to bring life to a laminated corpse, at least in the scenes she was in.” Regardless of role, she’s never just “the girl.” She never could be; Newton is too outspoken and concerned with issues like women’s rights, racism and sexual abuse to avoid taking roles that underline them.

For someone whose charisma is almost impossible to stamp out, her most interesting role to date might be in HBO’s Westworld, a serialized version of the 1973 Michael Crichton film. She plays an Old West madam who also happens to be a robot. She’s also set to star as the guest lead (make that guest lead villain) in the next series of the hit BBC drama Line of Duty. She also recently signed on to an untitled dark comedy for Amazon, joining the intriguing company of David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton and Amanda Seyfried.

If Newton stumbled on her calling accidentally, it wasn’t without some spark of predestination. In a much-covered 2011 TED talk, she recalled struggling to find herself as a bi-racial child growing up in two distinct cultures. But that very sense of “otherness” is essential to anyone who has to understand others for a living. And for anyone who also hopes that living serves a higher purpose. “You are her. You are her, and she is you,” she told Vanity Fair. “It makes me feel quite emotional. That’s how we are going to figure out things in the world, and I mean it.” We loved talking to her, and we mean it.